Foucault and the Hope of Resurrection

NOTE: this review was first published in the Summer 2020 print edition of Ad Fontes

The Power of Resurrection: Foucault, Discipline, and Early Christian Resistance by Patrick G. Stefan. Lantham, Fortress Academic. 2019. xxii + 298pp. $95.

April saw the anniversary of the incarceration of Wang Yi, the pastor of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China. His testimony and faithful suffering have been an inspiration to Christians around the world. One friend of mine described him and elder Qin Defu as “lions of the faith.” Anticipating his own arrest, Wang Yi wrote a Declaration of Faithful Disobedience to be released after he had been detained for two days. In it, he says,

All acts of the church are attempts to prove to the world the real existence of another world…I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ…if through this he continues disciplining and building up his church, then I am joyfully willing to submit…Those who lock me up will one day be locked up by angels. Those who interrogate me will finally be questioned and judged by Christ.[1]

In these words from a modern Chinese pastor, we hear the unmistakable spirit of the persecuted Church in the first three centuries. Just as the martyrs of the first three centuries defied the power of governors and emperors in the name of the risen Christ, so Wang Yi’s eschatological perspective relativizes the power of the Chinese Communist Party.

The rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire has attracted scholarly attention in recent years. Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity appeals to such factors as the church’s better treatment of women, better treatment of the sick, and eschewing of abortion and infanticide — a sociological explanation in which theology is conspicuous by its absence.[2] At the other extreme, N.T. Wright has urged that theology was the centripetal force holding together the worldview of the messianic people of God, so that for the early Church, theology was load-bearing in a way that it had not been in previous ages.[3] At the same time, there is an ongoing debate in New Testament studies about whether the New Testament, and especially the writings of the apostle Paul, contains veiled or not-so-veiled ideas aimed against the power of Caesar. On the one hand, Wright and Richard Horsley have claimed that anti-imperial polemic is an important part of the theology of the early Christian movement, albeit perhaps disguised or expressed in coded languages.[4] On the other hand, John M.G. Barclay denies that there is any such anti-imperial message and accuses the “anti-imperial Paul brigade” of torturing the evidence.[5]

In the scholarship on these issues—both the “triumph of Christianity” and the subversion of Caesar’s power—there has been remarkably little reflection about just how such subversion actually took place. Patrick Stefan’s book  supplies this lack, and it does so from a wide-ranging familiarity with the literature on the early church.

Stefan’s approach relies upon the analysis of power propounded by Michel Foucault. This has advantages and drawbacks. The downside is that the Foucauldian theory of power, like other tendentious and controversial theories (e.g. structuralism, feminist theory, Marxism, etc.), can become a bed of Procrustes that tortures the evidence. The upside is that whether the theory is true or not, it serves as a helpful heuristic device to distinguish the different kinds of power and their mechanisms. Foucault’s theory of power focuses things for us; it isolates them so that we can perceive them more closely; it highlights patterns and structures.

“Foucault’s theory of power focuses things for us; it isolates them so that we can perceive them more closely; it highlights patterns and structures.”

Foucault distinguishes several types of power. Of these, the two most relevant for Stefan’s thesis are sovereign power and disciplinary power. In sovereign power, the sovereign controls his subjects externally, by public displays of his power over life and death. In the case of Caesar, this was via public executions, gladiatorial games, and the like. “This spectacle demonstrated the sovereign as the victor who regained his honor through the struggle between sovereign and subject.”[6] We may doubt this construal of capital punishment, especially when we recall that it was also imposed on Israelite society by the Torah, despite the lack of any obvious earthly “sovereign.” There is also room to doubt whether the use of the death penalty in Christian societies past and present is an instance of “sovereign power,” though Foucault would no doubt have said it is.

This sovereign power is contrasted with disciplinary power, in which the power of the authority is internalized in the soul of the subject by means of disciplinary mechanisms. These mechanisms are enumerated as (1) control of the subjects’ activities, (2) their spatial distribution, (3) their organization into classes (“genera”), and (4) their combination into a united force (such as a military unit, or a hospital) to accomplish the will of the authority. Stefan believes that the first three mechanisms of Foucauldian disciplinary power (though not the fourth) are found in the early Church and that these mechanisms subverted and opposed the sovereign power of Caesar. The Foucauldian taxonomy of power is provocative, but difficult to swallow whole. Given the alleged overlapping compresence of multiple different mechanisms of power (sovereign, disciplinary, biopolitical) in the same society at any given time, so that evidence of any one apparatus is not evidence against the dominance of another apparatus, we may well ask whether Foucault’s theory is falsifiable. Be that as it may, it remains a useful heuristic device. By using Foucault’s categories, Stefan is able to give a provocative new reading of the evidence of early Christianity.

For instance, Stefan shows that, since the sovereign power of Caesar was exercised by the public killing of the bodies of the condemned, the early Christian apologists insisted upon a bodily, physical resurrection. He gives a thorough survey of patristic sources, citing Pseudo-Justin, Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian, and Origen, but above all, Athenagoras: “[Without a body], man as such cannot be said to exist.” (Res. 25.2-3). It is an impressive collection of authorities, and it gives the lie to recent misrepresentations of the patristic and Biblical doctrine, such as David Bentley Hart’s denial of the physicality of the resurrected body.[7]

“Since the sovereign power of Caesar was exercised by the public killing of the bodies of the condemned, the early Christian apologists insisted upon a bodily, physical resurrection.”

This hope of bodily resurrection shaped the Christian experience of time, first at the level of the week, then later via the Easter feast and other annual holy days. “The ever-increasing precise calendar of the Christian movement began to divide and order time for the subject so that the point of focus (resurrection) could penetrate the body using a program (liturgy) that would provide a schema of behavior that could differentiate the homogenous mass into individual units.”[8] If there is a weakness to Stefan’s discussion, it is in its failure to give sufficient consideration to the ordering of time in Judaism–though he does acknowledge that the early Christian movement “borrowed from and grew alongside its neighbors, especially early Jewish synagogue worship.”[9] The mother religion had, after all, set hours of daily prayer, a weekly Sabbath, and several annual feasts. It would be interesting to analyze Jewish “activity control” via the calendar in Foucauldian terms.

After the calendar, Stefan analyzes a second tool of disciplinary power: architecture. His analysis focuses on two structures, the third-century house church of Dura-Europos in Syria, and the fourth- through sixth-century Santo Crisogono in Rome. Stefan imaginatively reconstructs the activities within the eight rooms of the house church, positing a Roman soldier passing from catechumenate, to baptismal font, to eucharist—so that the early Christians “used this partitioned space for ritual, [and] these disciplinary mechanisms were…ritually infused with the theology of the resurrection.”[10] Some of this reconstruction is substantiated by the frescoes that adorn the building’s walls, but on the whole, it is speculative (as Stefan admits), not least because the Dura building is fairly unique; we do not possess a large sample of Christian buildings from the third century. Analysis of the house church could be improved by comparing that building with the famous third-century Jewish house-synagogue from the same city, similarly decorated with frescoes, and perhaps even more concerned with resurrection than the house-church.[11] Given that the layouts of the two religious buildings are similar (both were originally built as houses, after all), such a comparison might offer a salutary restraint upon speculative reconstructions of the theological use of space. In a similar way, Stefan’s analysis of Santo Crisogono as an instance of rank distinction enforced by architecture (a rood screen divided the nave from the chancel) invites questions about how such architectural innovations matched the development of clergy-laity distinctions.[12] Both of these proposals—hierarchical observation in Dura-Europos and architectural distinction of rank in Santo Crisogono—are provocative and exciting ideas, but must be judged as yet unproven.

In connection with such “hierarchical observation,” Foucault drew upon Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon, a prison with a central observation room capable of gazing upon any of the radially-arranged cells at any moment. Stefan points out that panopticism is the key to Foucault’s idea of discipline: the subject of such discipline, being under constant observation by authority, internalizes the authority’s requirements and judgments and forms a “soul” (in the tendentious Foucauldian sense) that controls the subject’s own body from within, in contrast to the external application of sovereign power. Stefan claims that in the early Church’s discipline, the resurrected Jesus is the agent who wields this panoptic power. (95-96)

I would urge, however, that the Hebrew Bible has a strong doctrine of God’s omniscience and the impossibility of escape from his observation: witness the inability of the psalmist to evade God’s presence in Psalm 139 (“O lord, thou hast searched me…Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?”), or the fear of God’s inquisition in Job 13:9 (“…will it be well with you when He searches you out?”) and Jeremiah 17:10 (“I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways.”); examples could be multiplied. This Biblical conception of God is the source for Bentham’s panopticon, which is a device contrived to mimic the effects of divine omniscience. Ancient Judaism produced a disciplinary society avant la lettre. Jews looked at pagan nations and saw their undisciplined behavior as the natural result of denying God’s omniscience: “They say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High? Behold, these are the ungodly (Ps. 73:11-12). Oddly, Stefan omits from his analysis some of the most “panoptic” passages of the NT, such as Hebrews 4:13 (“And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”) or 1 Timothy 5:25 (“So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden”). In light of the Hebrew Bible’s description of YHWH in the same way, we may wonder whether the “panoptic” power of the risen Christ is not best described as a part of what Richard Bauckham has called his “divine identity.”[13] Certainly, it can be best understood against this Jewish background.

In connection with this panoptic mechanism of disciplinary power, Stefan notes the eucharist as a locus of Christ’s real presence, the occasion when the early Christians were visited and inspected by their risen Lord. I might question, however, whether that presence of Christ in the eucharist is conceived of by the Biblical authors primarily as one of panoptic judgment rather than of visitation.[14] Stefan does not discuss the Pauline view that Jesus visits and judges his church in a manner reminiscent of Passover (1 Cor. 11:30-32), but he cites Ignatius and Origen who believe that Jesus is presiding, and Justin, who believes that Jesus’ flesh and blood are present.[15]

I commend Stefan’s thorough demonstration of the centrality of resurrection as the motivating doctrine behind early Christian defiance of the Roman Empire’s power. “The problem of the Christian martyr in the arena was that he did not play the part assigned to him by Caesar.”[16] Indeed, Stefan notes that in 257, the emperor Valerian changed the way Christian martyrs were treated in order to avoid embarrassment by martyrs resisting Caesar’s right to death. “The martyr was not simply out to pursue honor and fame, but true glory, eternal life, and a front-row seat at the judgment day when his executioner would meet the true judge.”[17] A survey of early Christian burial practices and funerary inscriptions rounds out Stefan’s survey of the evidence, and powerfully corroborates his thesis that the doctrine of resurrection was the motivating force behind early Christian defiance of the Roman Empire’s power. I would only add that the power of resurrection in the mind of martyrs is no less evident in the defiant recitation of the Shema by Akiba as the Romans combed his flesh with iron hooks (b.Ber. 61b), or the taunts of the seven brothers killed by the torturers Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Macc. 7). The transcendent power of the creator is the common property of Christians and Jews; from it, the doctrine of resurrection follows as the necessary consequence when the unstoppable power of God meets the seemingly immovable fact of death. Stefan’s work provokes this question: How did the doctrine of resurrection function differently in Christians than it did in Jews?

“By his integration of literary, archaeological, and liturgical evidence, Stefan brings the doctrine of resurrection down from the realm of ideas and demonstrates the many ways in which it was applied and lived out in the early Church.”

In the end, the book makes an extremely valuable contribution to scholarship on the first centuries of Christianity. By his integration of literary, archaeological, and liturgical evidence, Stefan brings the doctrine of resurrection down from the realm of ideas and demonstrates the many ways in which it was applied and lived out in the early Church. His illuminating thesis sheds welcome light upon the behavior of both Christians and their persecutors in our day as well. The church’s response to persecution by Chinese authorities and other tyrannical governments embodies the same Spirit and is empowered by the same doctrine of resurrection.

Matthew Colvin (PhD, Cornell 2004) is a priest in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He is the author ofThe Lost Supper (Fortress, 2019). He lives on Vancouver Island.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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